Saturday, July 12, 2008

T. Boone Pickens and a viable energy plan

Not only is T Boone Pickens' energy plan a bad plan. He is presenting it to the public in the wrong way. We have a plan to solve our problems announced from on high, just like the 5 year plan in the old Soviet Union. Of course the plan did not come from the Central Committee, it came from one man. There are several important things wrong about this plan:

* It is going to costa lot of money without solving the CO2 issue.
* It's success or failure will profoundly effect everyone's lives.
* The plan is not very likely to succeed.
* There has no public preplan discussion of energy options, just the launching of Pickens' slick advertising campaign.
* There was no consultative process with energy experts, or the creation of a panel of wise people to make energy recommendations. T. Boone was the whole panel!

Perhaps the good thing about the Pickens plan and its advertising campaign is that is that it focuses national attention on the need to make an all out effort to find and impliment a solution. What is amazing to me is that $4.00 a gallon gasoline has yet to wake the nation from its slumber about energy issues. The problem with $4.00 a gallon gas is that the wrong people get hurt. The people who are in a position to talk about the problems and initiate a decision making process simply can afford to go about their daily lives as if nothing is happening.

They both create the Main Stream Media and get their information from it. There lives are spent in a reality what is made of encapsulated information that is incredibly filtered and manipulated. The media manufactures reality for people, and it puts them to sleep to the dangers that we face. For such people reality is what they read in the newspaper or see on TV. They are the sleeping. At least T Boone Pickens, with his wrong headed plan has called on the sleepers to wake.

Once the country awakes it will face concophany of voices to sort out. The issues are beginning to be sorted out on the internet now, but that process will take some time. There are still a lot of important questions to ask and answer before we can come up with viable energy plan.

There is an important discussion and debate on the internet about energy issues. Ideas are put out for examination, and they are worked over. Major energy systems are being proposed for the future, and both their virtues and flaws are being examined.

We have recently seen yet another major debate on nuclear energy on the internet, with Joseph Romm and Amory Lovins taking the negative case and David Bradish, Rod Adams, the Sovietologist, Brian Wang, myself, and others to numerous to mention including dozens of Salon posters on one of Romm's anti-nuclear hit pieces. In particular David Bradish emerged as a central figure in the debate, he took on Lovins and demonstrated numerous errors in the way Lovins constructed his arguments, problems with Lovins data, his method of analysis, and Lovins highly selective approach to information. Both Bradish and the Sovietologist raised an issue about Lovins perspective that has serious implications for all renewables advocates. Namely that Lovins vision of the energy future is dependent on the future use of fossil fuels.

The problem with renewables is quite obvious, and it is a fundamental of Pickens' plan. It is the problem of intermittency. Renewable energy is not available on demand. So we have to have another source of electrical electricity for when renewable energy is not available. Thus in addition to the cost of a renewable energy system, we would have to use a back up system. The back up options are to use existing fossil fuel generating facilities, build energy storage facilities, and a third option that is rarely discussed, build nuclear plans for renewables backup.

The first option is seriously flawed, if we intend to get serious about fighting global warming. It relies on CO2 generating technology to back up renewable power. In addition, natural gas, a which would be a major part of the fossil fuel back up strategy is becoming increasingly expensive, and is at any rate a non-renewable resource and thus not an sustainable option. Coal has numerous problems. The proposal to sequester CO2 from burning coal is very expensive, has significant complexities, and carries risks that have not been assessed. It is doubtful that coal with Sequestered CO2 would be less expensive than nuclear power,

The second option, which involves the use of energy storage also has significant flaws. First renewable energy technologies are expensive ways to generate the massive amounts of electricity needed to run the American economy. Renewable advocates argue that renewables are cheaper than nuclear energy, but this is debatable. Renewable advocates have engaged in something less than full public disclosure on the price of renewable energy, or have posted pie in the sky price estimates, that do not survive scrutiny of actual renewable building costs. If the cost of energy storage is added to the cost of renewable electrical generation the cost will probably exceed the cost of building electrical generating reactors by a considerable margin.

Finally, the third approach to renewable back up is to build reactors to generate back up electricity. Although expensive, this plan would would have several advantages. For example it would not solve the CO2 problems related to fossil fuel back up, and unlike fossil fuels, nuclear energy is sustainable. There is so much mineable uranium and thorium in the earth's curst that for all practical purposes we will never run out no matter how much we burn for energy. Reactors are expensive, but not more so than some energy storage schemes that have been proposed. And there are things that could be done to bring down reactor costs. Possibly bring down reactor costs a lot without compromising on things like safety. Nuclear plants are also far more flexible than energy storage schemes. The storage schemes can only accept a limited amount of energy, before they are maxed out. The can only pump out the amount of energy stored. Reactors can pump out a virtually unlimited amount of energy. Once the fuel is burned, more can be added. On the other hand if the wind stops blowing for several days, once we drain our storage, we are out of energy, while back up reactors can keep pumping away. Thus back up reactors promise superior reliability to storage approaches.

There is, however, a problem for renewables in the back up reactor approach. Why use reactors to back up renewables, when the very reliable reactors can do the whole job on their own? It would be cheaper, and perhaps far cheaper to build the entire system using only nuclear power. This is, I believe what a blue ribbon panel of wise people will conclude in response to President Obama's charge to come up with a solution to our energy issues shortly after January 20, next year.

There is one more thing the wise peoples panel should look at, and that is the best way to generate electricity from nuclear energy. The conventional approach is to use Light Water Reactors, but they are very expensive, and generate waste. There are two proposals that have the potential to dramatically reduce reactor costs, the Pebble Bed Reactor (PBR), and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). Both reactor types are safe. Both reactor designs can be quickly mass-produced, and could be churning out power within months of being ordered. There are minimal siting problems for both reactor types. Neither concept is new, and both reactor types have received substantial research from the scientific community. Development costs would be extremely inexpensive if view in light of the amount of money America spends in even a week on imported oil. Both reactor types are safe, but the PBR still has generates nuclear waste. The LFTR does not generate a significant amount of nuclear waste, and indeed the fission byproducts from the LFTR can be sold for Industrial, agricultural, medical and sanitary uses.

The road is clearly open to a safe, low cost solution to our national energy problems. We need as a nation to discover the road and resolutely take it.


randal.leavitt said...

Hi Mr. Barton ....

You have, IMHO, rightly pointed out that much better understanding of our needs and capabilities is required.

To increase their wealth, ie their ability to survive in this rough world, technically advanced societies need negative entropy, or in other words very highly ordered energy. Future wealth creation will depend on computing, networking, real-time robotics, and innovative research (ie intellectual freedom and education). These processes are enabled by highly available, reliable, and controllable electricity. Pumping electrical noise into the electricity grid does not increase our wealth, for example. It only creates a noise reduction problem that we then have to solve to get the highly ordered electricity needed for wealth creation. If this concept is not forefront, discussions and plans for new energy systems will be a waste.

Local solutions are not sufficient. If the USA builds light water reactors that cannot be exported to the rest of the world due to proliferation worries, the only gain will the the satisfaction of knowing the USA did not kill the planet directly as we are all overwhelmed by CO2 problems. Americans have to come up for air, and see this as a planetary challenge if they want to save their own skins. A huge improvement in understanding is required.

Energy releasing fuels such as coal and fissionable metals give us heat, but we need electricity. We presently use turbines to extract a little bit of highly ordered electricity from large amounts of heat. This is the weak link. This is where we can make the biggest gains through technical invention. Surely a rational discussion of future energy plans would concentrate on direct heat to electricity conversion, and only worry about the original fuel as a secondary matter. To date, I have the impression that this issue is not well understood, and needs a lot of work.

And finally, a much improved understanding is needed concerning our motives for doing all this. I often read articles about future energy that seem to assume that living in the year 2100 will be almost the same as today. People will be driving cars, and eating food grown in dirt. Planning our energy systems based on these assumptions is sheer foolishness. For instance, from what I can glean, it looks like the human population will be less than three billion and plummeting downward by 2100. Anything that is difficult to maintain will be permanently out of service. We could really use some realism in this domain.

Consequently, I heartily support your endorsement of deeper and better thinking about energy.

Rod Adams said...


My problem with your suggestion is that there is no way to fill a room full of "wise people" and have them agree unless they devolve into group thinking that will provide a very sub-optimal solution that best protects their existing interests.

We need more individual thinkers like Boone Pickens who is willing to challenge the status quo. You know that I do not support the details of Pickens plan - it is silly on its face. There are severe limitation on the wind, its diffuse nature and its unreliability. I would prefer domestic natural gas to be used wherever possible to replace oil imported from dictatorships and oligarchies, but I also realize that even its current price is unsustainable for many important former uses like making good fertilizer.

Adding a lot of vehicles to the natural gas market might cause prices that would push even more industry out of the US.

No, what I like about Pickens plan is what it might enable to happen because people start talking and recognizing the opportunity to challenge the status quo. Average Americans are spending WAY too much of their precious resources to strengthen regimes that are simply immoral; not all of those regimes are in foreign countries and not all of them are even leaders of countries.

Some of the aristocracies that benefit from out current energy situation are right here in America and have names like Lee Raymond, Jeffery Immelt, Jack Welch, David O'Reilly, and Aubrey McClendon. In fact Pickens is also a part of that crowd, though he has the courage to challenge it and to make some real waves.

I love the fact that the conversation is happening on the Internet and that people are challenging some of the courtiers like Lovins, Gunter, and Yergin who have enabled the oil, coal and gas enriched establishment to continue their domination. My goal is to make sure that the rest of us win in the oil end game and to make sure that the oil end game is not at all an energy end game.

Randall - I certainly hope that our world population does not fall like you envision. It would be a seriously depressing place if people really stopped having children because they saw no hope of improved lives in the future. There is a lot of work to do, a lot of living to do and an almost unimaginable store of the resources that we need to do it. All that it takes it to throw off the threads that the scared Lilliputians have used to bind down our knowledge of the way forward.

BTW - I hope that you all recognize that I am talking in code and analogies and using allusions to get my point across.

Charles Barton said...

Randal and Rod think you both for your comments. Randal the right question is "can life in 2100 look like life today?" My answer would be yes, but that does not mean that it will. One of my goals in this blog is to sketch out means by which a high energy future, including access to personal transportation, would be possible.

The route to a high energy was described by Alvin Weinberg in the late 1970's and can be found in the papers I have linked too. I have review the highlights of Weinberg's thinking in some of my early posts.

Rod, Pickens should be commended for attempting to provide leadership. But a guy who got rich by buying companies, firing their staffs, bleeding their assets, and then shutting the shriveled husks down, is perhaps not the best suited guy to provide leadership for an energy future.

We do need leadership, and we do need people who are smart enough to cut through the fog.

Rod, when I speak of a panel of wise people, not the usual run of washed up politicians and ex-command level military officers who often sit on presidential commissions. I mean people with sharp minds who are capable of thinking independently. People like Nobel Prize winning scientists. My model would be Richard Feynman on the Challenger Commission.

Not only did Feynman find the cause of the Challenger disaster, his report analyzed the conceptual failures that lead to the Challenger disaster.
The reason for the creation of a wise person panel would be to provide a public forum in which all of the crap that has come from third rate thinkers like Lovins can be exposed for what it is and flushed. In my estimation it will take several years of public discussion and debate to get the energy future sorted out. The wise person panel would be part of that process, and given the charge of sorting firm conclusions out.

Soylent said...

Randal, the amount of energy consumed in farming is actually quite limited.

About half is used for ammonia fertilizer; less for some crops, more for others.

If the yearly consumption of ~110 million metric tonnes of ammonia, some of which does not go to farming but to explosives, plastics, etc; was produced from gas i would take 3.6 quads using the haber-bosch process. That's only 3.8% of world natural gas consumption.

Natural gas is used because it's a convenient carrier of hydrogen but there's no reason you can't use any other energy source, such as gasification of coal, biomass or even electric power.

Using haber-bosch + electrolysis of water would take about 4.5 quads of electrical energy, 8% of world consumption. Solid-state ammonia production is also possible using technology similar to fuel cells; if things work out commercially it could potentially provide the current world demand for ammonia using a more tolerable 2.8 quads of electrical energy.

Ammonia or derivates(e.g. ammonium nitrate, urea) is easy enough to store that the process could be used to soak up cheap off-peak electricity; like surplus baseload power at night(see France) or even terribly unreliable and intermittent power(perhaps we can use that 100 GW and rapidly rising of installed wind capacity and other boondoggles for something useful instead of injecting noise into the grid; at 25% capacity factor 100 GW is 0.75 quads/year).

Most of the other energy consumed in farming is from mining the phosphates, calcium, potassium and other minerals in fertilizer. Most of the energy consumed here is electrical or diesel and electrification seems rather easy. Most of it is consumed by huge drag lines, crushers, pumps, slurry pipelines, conveyors and so forth. There's ~100 ppm of uranium in phosphate rock, not an insignificant amount.

Pesticides and farming equipment is a tiny part of the energy required for farming and I have no doubt we can produce enough diesel for these for a very long time or even produce enough synthetic diesel from fisher-tropsch. These machines just don't have to go that very far or very fast; it seems easy to electrify farming equipment but I could be wrong.

Shipping this food to consumers is a vastly larger problem. Trucks are about half to a quarter as efficient as rail and giant container ships are about twice to four times as efficient as rail; we may see a significant re-shuffling of people to reflect this reality as well as electrification of rail, and nuclear power for massive container ships(~80 MW diesel engines for the largest ones, plus some generators. There are actual ladders going down into the crank case and the cylinders are large enough to enclose several people; they have to be seen to be believed).

The inabillity of poor people to entitle themselves to enough of that food if the price rises significantly is also a very serious problem.

Scotty said...

There is a Public Discussion Forum For Pickens Energy Plan : It would be great if you participate there.

Warren Heath said...

I like the idea of the Science Court, modeled after the Supreme Court, but instead using Scientists and Engineers selected by National Academy’s, and vetted for conflict of interest. See:

Arthur Kantrowitz Bio

The Science Court – Science’s Greatest Challenge, by Arthur Kantrowitz

Much has been made of how Politicians in the Vietnam War liked to make military decisions, including deciding which places to target for air strikes, and what an absolute screw-up it was. Nowadays, politicians, including Bush & Cheney, like to say they leave the military decisions for experienced military planners. But now we have a situation immensely worse, where politicians who couldn’t pass a high school introductory physics test, are making life or death science and engineering decisions especially in the Energy Area. What generally happens, is that the Snake Oil Salesman, AKA Lobbyist, who pads the politicians pockets with the most cash, and gives an impressive song-and-dance, gets the funding. And by this very means, runaway Global Warming is virtually inevitable, Fuel Rationing is just around the corner, Power Blackouts – get used to them, Flooded Coastal Cities – canoes are cheap, Food Shortages caused by wacky Biofuels – riots, mass emigrations – to be expected.

randal.leavitt said...

Rod --- It really seems to be clear now that the world population is plummeting. There are lots of reasons for this, but in this discussion the important thing is that our energy plans take this into account. Here is one fact that is an example of what we are facing:

2008 - 128 million
2050 - 100 million
2100 - 064 million

Every second house in the city will be empty.

Ondrej Chvala said...

There is actually no solution to the energy storage issue as yet anywhere close to the scale necessary. The energy storage proposed by the Grand solar plan, Eurosolar and others is CAES:

Unfortunately CAES systems do not scale to GW range as other systems (such as pumped hydro), they are limited to suitable geological locations (perhaps more than pumped hydro), and actually they are not just a storage, but need natgas (as opposed to pumped hydro): "The McIntosh CAES plant requires 0.69kWh of electricity and 1.17kWh of gas for each 1.0kWh of electrical output [1](a non-CAES natural gas plant can be up to 60% efficient therefore uses 1.67kWh of gas per kWh generated." quoting the Wikipedia article above.

[NB: CAES depends heavily on both natgas fuel and old used oil/natgas wells. Oil industry must love that. How surprising, isn't it?]

Unless we come up with some (fantastically) economic form of energy storage, solar+wind renewables are dependent on fossil fuels, in particular on natural gas. The difference between 1.17kWh of natgas for each 1.0kWh of electrical output with CAES or 1.67kWh of gas per kWh without CAES (assuming we have all the geological locations we need), is not that important, as the amount of energy in known resources of both natgas and oil is similar, and will not last that long - less than a century is certainly not "sustainable", even if we wouldn't be worried about CO2 and NOx emissions and their grave consequences.

Perhaps a solution could be accommodated by a bunch of small reactors which can vary power output rapidly, constructed nearby wind warms and solar plants. However in this case it would be clearly cheaper and more efficient to just run the reactors at their maximum capacity compatible with the grid demand, saving all the non-renewable resources and other complications concerning the wind mills/solar plants.

The hypothetical transition to wind/solar solar + CAES is therefore a transition from coal to natgas burning, which is even less sustainable than coal, and certainly not affordable: natural gas is the most efficient oil substitute, therefore the prices move together. Natgas now trades well above $12/MBTU, while the typical price range assumed for future natgas just a year or two ago was $6-8.

Charles Barton said...

Ondrej, You are quite right, we need to be quickly transitioning away from natural gas use, first because it contributes to AGW, and secondly because it is becoming increasingly expensive as a source of heat. You have captured the thrust of my argument. If we follow the problem of intermittency through to its logical conclusion, we end up making an argument for nuclear power generation as opposed to power generation by renewables.

Ray Lightning said...

Hi Charles

Imagine a rich guy sitting on top of a monopolistic business. What would be his primary motive ? It is simple, it is to maximize the amount of profit that can be milked out of this business.

Mr.Pickens did just that. He now realized his oil wells are running dry and that he can no longer make any money on it. So he tries to shift to the next best monopoly which is natural gas.

An illuminating figure about the acting strategy of several countries is their estimated reserve life of oil resources at the current rate of production. Each country wants the world to shift to an oil-free economy based on this time frame. No more no less.

The corporate puppeteers pull their political strings to align with the time frames they have in their mind.

Green jokers such as Amory Lovins, Joseph Romm etc (who do not show a sustainable energy blueprint) cater to these oil-bosses in aligning the shift-time precisely with the period to maximize the oil + natural gas profits.

Free cheap and sustainable energy ? You should be joking. We would be foolish to think that the governments would do people's bidding. It will do the bidding of the people who matter. Nobody is going to order about a shift to nuclear breeders or thorium, anytime soon. Not until the greedy guys milked their oil profits to completely dry.

Panel of wise men, heh ? Sir, The president of USA is not Plato. He is a puppet/joker being pulled by corporatocracy through institutions such as the Heritage Foundation.

By the way, did you check this article of Heritage Foundation when breeder reactors are compared to supersonic travel ? Spreading misinformation such as this is what I call a crime against humanity.

Charles Barton said...

Ray Lightning, first let me say that that you are familiar with the Ramayana is most impressive.

Your observation on the Pickens plans are astute. I do have a disagreement with you over the potential of the American President to provide leadership. It seems to me that Presidents fail to provide leadership, either because they lack the ability, because the lack tho political power to lead, or because they are constrained by other circumstances.

I believe that Mr. Obama will be elected President, and that he has already displayed a high level of leadership talent. He will be fortunate because the 2008 will probably see a Democratic sweep of Congress as well. Further more Obama's campaign isbeing financed to an extraordinary extent by donations solicited over the internet. These donations come do not come from special interest, they come from ordinary people.

Thus I believe that Mr. Obama, will be able to launch a national conversation over energy. Completion of that conversation might take the entire 4 years of the first Obama administration.

I would disagree with you about the power of what you call "the corporatocracy". The lack of economic leadership by the the Bush administration has deeply eroded the power of American business. A business whose head office in in Belgium is not going to have the same influence as one whose head office is in Saint Louis. The United States economy has been deeply damaged during the last few years, and as the economy continues to unravel, and business continue to be sold to foreign owners or collapse, we will begin to see more and more confusion in the ranks ofAmerican business. One cannot pull the strings if one does not know the direction in which to pull them.

George Carty said...

Randall, isn't Japan a special case though, given that it is a society which is both very densely populated and vehemently anti-immigrant? (The only gaijin immigrants the Japanese can stand are Japanese-Brazilians, and them only barely...)


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